Roger Deakins on ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and That Elusive First Oscar

Cinematographer Roger Deakins has amassed 13 Oscar nominations throughout his career for work on films like “The Shawshank Redemption,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Skyfall.” It has become a slice of Oscar trivia that he has yet to win, tied for the record on that score with the late George J. Folsey (“The Great Ziegfeld,” “Adam’s Rib”). Denis Villeneuve’s massive blockbuster sequel “Blade Runner 2049” may or may not be the turning of the tide for Deakins at the Academy Awards, but judging by his response to such factoids, he isn’t losing any sleep over it. He’s just happy to still be doing the work of visual storytelling. He continues to perform at a high level, and he’s forged a partnership with Villeneuve over the course of three films now (“Prisoners” and “Sicario” being the others) that makes for one of the great visual signatures in modern cinema.

Deakins spoke to Variety about his work on the new film, which has been hailed by some critics as a masterpiece of genre filmmaking.

Variety: This is easily one of the biggest projects of your career. Did it feel like that? Did it feel like a moment?

Roger Deakins: A moment, I don’t know about that. It just felt long, you know? It was a long time because I was involved very early on, and over the summer I’ve been involved in the final effects work and timing, so it’s been quite a long haul.

When Denis first approached you about working on the film, what was your first instinct? Was there trepidation, given that it’s the sequel to such a beloved cinema milestone?

Yeah, absolutely. But there were kind of rumors of it while we were doing “Sicario,” that they would ask Denis [to direct it]. So it was floating around. When he asked me, you couldn’t really say no. It’s really nice the reviews are pretty good, because it was a difficult one, in terms of, you know, some people are going to want you to do things similar to the original, but then others would say, “Well, it’s just a copy.” But it’s very much Denis’ film, and I realized that going into it, that he was going to make his own movie.

So you didn’t go back and look at Jordan Cronenweth’s work in the original film, even for like an aesthetic continuity or anything?

We didn’t talk about it and I didn’t want to go there. I can’t light like Jordan. It was a different time and he had a different sensibility. I would have been lost and it wouldn’t have been at all satisfying to try and replicate somebody else’s work.

Was “Blade Runner” a landmark film for you at all? It continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers.

I remember thinking it was more of a detective movie that paid homage to film noir more than it did to science-fiction. I was a big fan of science-fiction and Philip Dick, and frankly, the film is so far away from the book. The main character is such an antihero in the book. It’s very different. Not that it’s not great. I was just a bit thrown when I first saw it; it wasn’t what I expected at all.

Were there any touchstones of note when you and Denis started in on the look of the new film? Any photography or artwork that inspired you?

We basically trawled the internet looking for ideas. Denis and I scouted in London because at one time we had hoped to shoot in London, but there was no stage space. A lot of the Brutalist architecture in London became the key, really. [Production designer] Dennis Gassner said what informed him the most was when Denis said he wanted it to feel Brutalist, that severe concrete architecture that started in the 1950s.

With Las Vegas, Denis wanted it to have the red dust. We discussed it at length and we came up with these images of Sydney during the dust storm that they had a few years ago. There are these wonderful photos of the Sydney Opera House and it’s covered with red dust. That formed the basis for Las Vegas.

Speaking of Gassner, his work is stunning here and I often find his presence is noteworthy vis a vis your work. You’ve shot his sets for decades now — numerous Coen brothers collaborations, Sam Mendes’ films, etc. Tell me about that interplay.

Most of the conceptualization happened as we were storyboarding, and Dennis was with us in Montreal. It was a group think tank. I’ve known Dennis for years and we’ve worked very closely, but Denis is very specific on what he wants. I think most of the concepts of the design were very much Denis’ vision, to use an overused word.

In the film’s promotional materials you’ve spoken about the set and lighting challenges being some of the most significant of your career. Could you be a little more specific about that?

You set your own kind of challenges, really. I could have bounced a light off the ceilings of the sets and just shot, but you kind of want to do something that expresses what’s on the page. I looked at a lot of images on the internet and got lighting ideas for different sets. It was a big thing to coordinate what I wanted to do with what Dennis wanted to do in terms of the design. And I was probably working with the art directors more than with Dennis, as we got closer to shooting, because it was a practical thing about how I could light a set and where I needed a space — the nitty gritty of design in terms of lighting it. The lighting of K’s apartment and his building was something I discussed with Dennis early on, about how you build in practicals and what would they look like and could they be slightly unusual but not distracting. It’s something that evolves.

The biggest challenge, in a way, was finding a look for Jared Leto’s character, Wallace’s, interiors. It’s a very minimal Brutalist architecture, but then I looked at the way architects had used light, and they used water in a ceiling or something to allow light to filter through and you get all these kind of caustic patterns. I thought of the idea that this guy, who is blind, was actually living in this space with artificial sunlight moving everywhere. So then I decided I wanted all the lights moving, so it ups the complexity and the headache factor. [Laughs.] I didn’t have to do that but it seemed like a good thing to do.

It seems like more than any other film you’ve done, the visual effects on this one are sort of seamlessly integrated and part of the overall world. So what impact did that element have on your work?

Denis and I wanted to do as much as possible in-camera and we insisted when we had the actors, at least, all the foreground and mid-ground would be in-camera. So when we shot K’s rooftop in the rain with Joi [a holographic artificial intelligence application], for instance, that early sequence, I talked to the art department about doing forced perspective, miniature buildings. We didn’t have a huge stage space so the art department built things in miniature, so you got the feeling of the distance and the scale from a smaller space.

I find myself wondering if you applied anything you might have learned on “Skyfall” here. There was that Shanghai sequence with the big LED jellyfish and then some similar motifs in the holographic imagery of “Blade Runner 2049.”

That actually is a good point. The idea of doing forced perspective, that’s what we did on that set in “Skyfall.” That was basically all in-camera. The glass rooms, the office space is real, what you see outside is real space, but everything else is slightly forced perspective. The big LED screen that has the jellyfish on it in “Skyfall,” we used a similar technique with the big Joi ad at the end of “Blade Runner.” We had to have a 40×30 LED screen projecting back the pink figure of Joi that we had shot in pre-production, and she was on a blue background, so basically when you were looking over Ryan [Gosling]’s shoulder, the whole perspective and color and feel was accurate. Obviously the image is replaced and made to look a little more electronic, but you’re basically shooting something that’s real, which not only helps the actors but gives a reality to the whole thing. All the atmosphere we had on that stage, the color interacts with the atmosphere and it lights Ryan the correct way. That’s something we could have done with a lighting effect and green screen, but it would never look as real as it does.

Did you employ some of that in the Las Vegas interiors, where there are these projected holograms of Elvis Presley and other entertainers in a key action sequence?

Some of the shots with Elvis — we had an Elvis lookalike, so some of the shots had him in, and then we’d shoot another take without the actors in the background so they could make Elvis transparent. And we also shot him as an element that was put in. But most of the lighting was done when we shot Ryan and Harrison [Ford], so it all fit in the space.

All of that sounds really fun.

That was kind of fun! But it’s also scary, because there were so many sets and so many challenging situations, which, okay, for my fault they were challenging, but we weren’t often on a set for more than a few days. So it was often quite a turnaround.

So what’s next for you? I haven’t seen anything announced about your next gig yet.

I’m starting prep in a couple of weeks on a film that starts shooting in January. It’s called “The Goldfinch.”

Do you expect to work on “Dune” with Denis?

He hasn’t mentioned it. I haven’t mentioned it. I don’t know. You read so many things about what he might or might not do. So I don’t know.

With just a handful of films you guys have a fantastic partnership going. And I meant to ask you what you thought of Bradford Young’s work on “Arrival.”

Oh, it was great. I mean, that’s the thing. You work with Denis and your work gets lifted, really.

I don’t know if I’ve ever really broached this with you because it’s sort of a jinx, I guess, but by now it should be obvious you have a wave of support to finally get you an Academy Award.

Oh, you know, I’m too old for all of that. Whatever. Just doing it is enough, and still doing the job. What you do doesn’t change. The fun is doing it. I’m really pleased the film is getting some good reactions. It has something to say. It makes people think. And it’s quite different from a lot of what you see. I read one review that mentioned Andrei Tarkovsky, and it mentioned that “Blade Runner 2049” owes as much to Tarkovsky as anything else. And it was a compliment, which is kind of nice, because his name isn’t exactly praise in Hollywood!

I was just going to say, if we can work Tarkovsky into our blockbusters, that’s fantastic.

Yeah! I thought, “Wow, that must be a first.”

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